Those were the days
In a Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) rehearsal room, conductor Nicholas Kok and director Andrew Sinclair are working on a student production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea, written in 1642 by Claudio Monteverdi, one of Italy's earliest opera composers. Opera back then was freewheeling populist entertainment compared to the current multilayered construct, according to the two men who have extensive international experience in the art form.
And directors then might not have had that important a role, says Sinclair, resident director with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 'People were just positioned on the stage; the music was the interpretive side and the director's role, if there was such a thing, was probably not as it is today.'
Kok remarks that he would have been similarly redundant. 'I don't think anyone would have conducted, since operas were done with very small forces. I've seen the inventories from the theatres that show how much the musicians were paid and how many performances were given,' the Briton says.
'The idea was to put on something that was going to be very popular, and you made money.'
Indeed, the staging of such an early work, which will be performed on March 22, 24 and 26 in the academy's Drama Theatre, reminds us how far opera has evolved over the past four centuries. There was a public thirst for those pioneering works that leaves today's contemporary composers with a mixture of admiration and envy.
'Pieces like Poppea, and many others that were lost, they were more like the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical theatre pieces of their day,' says Kok. 'They wrote hardly anything down; the players would have known what to play. If you play in a rock band, you know pretty well the basic harmonic language. Back then, they would also have known what to expect.'
The singers, too, came from a different stable that matched the style of the music, even into Mozart's time. 'In Die Zauberflote [The Magic Flute],' notes Kok, 'the first [lead female role of] Pamina was only 17 years old. You weren't rigorously trained to get your voice loud [enough] to project over a big orchestra.'
Today's singers are a different breed and it's a subject on which the 58-year-old Sinclair has developed strong views during his 36 years at Covent Garden.
'I think the way society is today, we're very fickle. There's always got to be a new style, a new singer,' the Australian says. 'There are a number of singers now who are 40 and in their prime, but the public has no interest in them because they're not young, they don't fit the instant gratification image of the opera-going public.'
He recalls the days of artists such as sopranos Birgit Nilssen and Joan Sutherland, and mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, comparing them with today's stars, who are good, 'but they're so marketed that they believe everybody is lucky to have them and so they think they can behave in any way they like, in rehearsal, almost in performance. I think there are only two singers now who excite me.'
Top singers don't come cheaply and the cost has to be reflected in ticket prices, attracting the charge of elitism. Sinclair defends the situation by reminding people that Covent Garden performances are broadcast live at no charge to audiences in its outside piazza, and that stars don't come for free.
'We don't pay anywhere near the top fees in the world, but singers want to come and perform in Covent Garden. I think it's unrealistic for people to think you can have it for 25 cents and it'll look like sable.'
While the earliest operas were either self-financing or produced completely at the expense of princely courts, it's a different story for today's promoters who must contend with the significant costs of sourcing star names and lavish sets.
Both men note that ticket sales apart, finance for opera in the US is secured entirely by private sponsorship, which qualifies for tax relief. This is a fundamental difference with the situation in Britain where donors get none; here in Hong Kong, a new scheme provides government money to match private financing. It's under this arrangement that Kok and Sinclair have been engaged, following a donation of HK$5.5 million by Dr Helmut Sohmen and Dr Peter Thompson, respectively former chairman and member of the APA's Council. The money will benefit APA students for the next five years through a programme of projects working with visiting artists.
Kok, 48, is the principal conductor and artistic adviser of leading British contemporary music ensemble Psappha, that specialises in new instrumental music, and music theatre. With a passion for both old and new stage works, he admits to being stumped as to why many musical heads don't always turn in the right direction in order to balance curatorship of the old with friendship for the new.
'Basically what is happening is that music has gone down a very authentic road, unearthing how things might have been done in the past; theatre's gone the other way. I don't know why,' he says.
Opera's enduring success since the days of Poppea, however, has landed itself the further challenge of producing future singers who can service its vast, varied and, despite the difficulties, constantly growing catalogue.
The onus is on institutions such as the APA to supply performers for both the old and new styles, but Kok and Sinclair have no doubt that the academy is up to the job, expressing unreserved praise for the response the students have shown during the current project.
Both are positive about their experience with the APA project: Kok is greatly impressed by the students' linguistic skills in handling English, Cantonese, Putonghua and, for Poppea, Italian. 'They are doing phenomenally. There are one or two who have probably surprised themselves,' says Kok.
'They're very open, aren't they?' adds Sinclair. 'And incredibly responsive. Some are going by leaps and bounds and I certainly think there's one person there who's surely going to have a career, and a very fine one. What worries me is there's not going to be enough work here for them. It's incredibly depressing these talented students will not have anywhere [local] to go when they finish.'
L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Mar 22, 24 and 26, 7.30pm, Drama Theatre, APA, HK$90 and HK$140. Inquiries: 2584 8514